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date: 20 October 2021

Afro-Pessimist and Curriculum Studiesfree

Afro-Pessimist and Curriculum Studiesfree

  • Michael BaughMichael BaughAuburn University at Montgomery


  • Curriculum and Pedagogy


A vivid philosophical reconfiguration: the night in which all the “Africans” are Black. At the port of Ouidah, Benin, the captive and the children of his loins now know of, and become, a very different Endgame than Beckett could have imagined.1

Consider now those who are the ontological otoconia for a stable civil society, and the resulting tumultuous vertigo that will arise at the hint of movement from the designated arena.2

Afro-pessimism erupts from the abyss of ontological absence to assertively intimate a plight which precedes, exceeds, and overwhelms conventional and cliched conceptions of social marginalization and exclusion—turning instead to the illumination of a non-analogous violent structural reality that arises as a problem saturated in one’s positionality in relation to the reigning “symbolic order” (Wilderson, 2010) of anthropological matter. In this, the likes of Gayatri Spivak’s (1988) question of whether the subaltern can speak, for example, rings mute as Afro-pessimism contests with most stifling iterations of its own: What does it mean to suffer the “slings and arrows”3 of outrageous metaphysical fortune? What means it to structurally suffer as outcasts of the gerrymandered ontological zones? Arising simultaneously are questions that reveal the contents of their concern: Can the Black live? Can the Black Be? For Spivak’s (1988) question, to the Afro-pessimist, becomes a rather superficial hollow of hegemonic heritage that is undeniably birthed in the depths of the Human condition. It cognizes not that which bellows out from the necropolis in which the “unthought” (Hartman & Wilderson, 2003) resides and has not a language to articulate that which the Afro-pessimist espouses. This necropolis, or rather this zone of nonbeing (Fanon, 1952/1967) articulated, is but the plot of ground for which language finds its footing to even begin such a discourse on suffering. Modernity has thus ensured: Entrance into the “kingdom of culture” (Du Bois, 1903/1994) is forever barred by an endless parasitic relational reality fed by none other than insatiable fervors and manifestations of collective anti-Black desire. And if we are to accept that Human be the stuff ontic dreams are made on, one must aggressively problematize the Western canon itself as well as the anti-Black fervor that saturates the globe. Yet here, this article will settle for an appendage of the Western canon: Curriculum and the very field of curriculum studies in the context of the United States.

What does Afro-pessimism reveal about the field of curriculum studies? Without the veil of sociopolitical correctness, a more precise articulation arises: What series of trespasses does Afro-pessimism charge the field of curriculum studies with? Ah, but where does one begin? What grievance most needs explication? Shall this investigative inquiry begin by citing that curriculum studies scholars engage too often in a dangerous game—this being a parasitic politics of hope that feeds incessantly on selling the “nigger” they created a layered façade: The gift of sovereign powers, political subjectivity, and a future (in which escape from the noose is upon the horizon) at their fingertips via the means of civil societal avenues? To this point, Warren (2015) cited: “The politics of hope, then, constitutes what Lauren Berlant would call ‘cruel optimism’ for blacks” (p. 221). Further, should the investigator encircle that discussion on otherness in curriculum studies points mainly to a central White figure and others on the margins, instead of looking at the “Other”4 beyond curriculum studies’ othering conceptions, an Other for the Human? More so, is it fitting to begin by citing that the field cognizes not the “ontic illusionary” (Warren, 2018) reality of Blackness? Perhaps it is best to instead unpack critical race theory (CRT), often employed by many a “critical” curricular scholar, as “a theory of race, or more precisely, racism” that arrives not at the place of “a theorization of blackness or even the Black condition” (Dumas & ross, 2016, p. 416).

Maybe a worthy beginning might include an interrogation of the works by John Dewey (1916), Franklin Bobbitt (1918), and George S. Counts (1932/1978). Dewey (1916), Bobbitt (1918), and Counts (1932/1978) articulate not the reality of the captive who serves as the very ground of not only their imaginative dreamwork, but also of the adjacent discourses which make White visionary inquiries even possible.5 Further, maybe it is best to scrutinize Dwayne Huebner whose Heideggerian embrace (Huebner et al., 1999), both, recognizes not that Heidegger (1927/2010) labors atop of and requires the ontological nothing that the Black represents, and also understands not a slave who throws the throwness (Geworfenheit) of “being-in-the-world” into question.6 Maybe a fitting start would probe Freire (1970) whose “pedagogy of the oppressed” remains ill-suited for Black bodies because the Black (slave) exists beyond Freirean methods of redressing hegemony. Maybe it is best to question the imaginary within Maxine Greene (1978) and Janet Miller’s (2005) texts. Instead, maybe a more adequate investigation would be peer into Ruben Gaztambide-Fernández’s (2015) constructed “browning” as a response to the centrality and synonymity of White and Human within curriculum discourses. Unfortunately, what Gaztambide-Fernández (2015) proposed misses the mark and is, too, an anti-Black formation. By somewhat blurring what is described by—Afro-pessimists as—the line between degraded Humans and non-Humans and by obscuring the line between conflicts and antagonisms, Gaztambide-Fernández (2015) erects a film of concealment that proposes a recasting of curriculum which works to reinforce the current structure. Gaztambide-Fernández (2015) does not imagine that White and Brown peoples are partners in the anti-Black drama.

Overview of the Problem

What this article pushes to the fore are the problematic gestures that curriculum’s reconceptualization presents for Black bodies. Orbiting this central problem are concerns that the very composition of curriculum and the very field of curriculum are exploitative endeavors that cognize and theorize gleefully in the aftermath of ontological murder. But what is curriculum? What is the field of curriculum studies? What is the reconceptualization? Pinar et al. (1995) revealed that curriculum is an amalgamation of intentions and activities that can be summarized by exclaiming: [It is] “what the older generation chooses to tell the younger generation.” Curriculum is “the site on which generations struggle to define themselves and the world” (pp. 847–848). Lest one forget, the very manner and modes in which curriculum “struggles” is steeped in the role that hegemonic ideologies and the violence enacted by “official knowledge” (Apple, 1993) play in the realm of the social. Most central, curriculum is a site in which participants ponder on that which is worthy of one’s attention (Schubert, 1986). Elaborating on this notion of worth, the central inquiry in the field of curriculum studies is an investigation into what is worth being, becoming, doing, sharing, overcoming, and so on (Schubert, 2009). The very field seeks to narrate, for the social actor, a social and political location, a psychic stability, a degree of meaning and purpose within the larger human narrative. And curriculum’s reconceptualization arose to supposedly further these ends while most notably functioning to, as Gaztambide- Fernández (2015) doubts, “dethrone the White subject as the definition of humanity” (p. 418).

The Afro-pessimist counters by exclaiming that curriculum is, instead, the site on which Human participants ponder on the matters pertinent to their shared Humanity. To be clear, the marker of “Human” encompasses all non-Black bodies. Curriculum is a parasitic entity that labors to refurbish and maintain a Human world, not to rip it asunder. What births curricular activity (ontological death of the Black), what allows the curricular imagination to populate (ontological death of the Black), what undergirds the liberatory efforts of curriculum and transcendence (since curriculum strives to catapult the participant toward transcendence) is that which must be footed, that which must be overcome—the Black—in order for non-Black actors to leapfrog toward being, to enjoy Human possibilities.7 Curriculum requires a (Blackened) creature from which to transcend,8 a creature that can never wield curriculum’s reconceptualized and otherwise theorized antihegemonic weaponry, a creature that is plundered for the erection of curriculum’s gospel. Curriculum is concerned with the evolved Human being that has distanced itself from death—the Black that has been cast aside for the fulfillment of Human dreams. Curriculum is concerned with the greatest modern creation (Whiteness) as its musing monarch. And yet, many scholars of curriculum believe in curriculum’s supposed utility, in curriculum’s supposed universal appeal and applicability. The field itself places the Black within its curricular imaginary while allowing the Black no subjecthood. In this, curriculum preaches that all political actors are intertwined somewhere in the societal body (having conventional demands, needs, and desires). Scholars seem unaware, however, that their foundational curricular questions and democratic concerns are only birthed in the aftermath of the former African’s ontological obliteration. Beyond conventional ethical concern, scholars must instead resign themselves to ending the curriculum project as we know it. Utilizing Aimé Césaire (1939/2013), scholars must, above all else, attend to a new “worthwhile” concern: Fixate upon bringing about la fin du monde (the end of the world).9

Explicating Afro-Pessimism

Afro-pessimism is “a lens of interpretation that accounts for civil society’s dependence on anti-Black violence” (Douglass et al., 2018, para. 1). Accounting for anti-Black violence is, as Jared Sexton (2016) informs, an epistemological and ethical project. This is much about “an attempt to formulate an account of” the very suffering thrust upon and experienced by “those whose transcendence is foreclosed in and for the modern world” (para. 8). Such is that which unabashedly unfurls through the meditations of Afro-pessimists: Orlando Patterson, Saidiya Hartman, Hortense Spillers, Lewis Gordon, Ronald Judy, Achille Mbembe, George Yancy, Frank Wilderson, Jared Sexton, Kara Keeling, and Joy James (Wilderson, 2010), who journey to explicate the problem of Black positionality while laboring to echo “[Frantz] Fanon’s insistence that though Blacks are indeed sentient beings, the structure of the entire world’s semantic field—regardless of cultural and national discrepancies . . . is sutured by anti-Black solidarity” (Wilderson, 2010, p. 58). Pertinent while also not a comprehensive list of texts which explicate that which Afro-pessimism divulges are the following: Patterson’s (1982) Slavery and Social Death, Hartman’s (1997) Scenes of Subjection and (2007) Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route, Spillers’ (1987) Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book, Gordon’s (1997) Her Majesty’s Other Children, Mbembe’s (2017) Critique of Black Reason, Yancy’s (2008) Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race in America, Wilderson’s (2010) Red White and Black, and Sexton’s (2008) Amalgamation Schemes. One must also include Calvin Warren’s (2018) Ontological Terror and Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope, which emerged onto the scene to punctuate this arena with needed philosophical paradigms and critiques. And more meditations on Blackness arrived within deeply interrogative works of Christina Sharpe’s (2016) In the Wake: On Blackness and Being and David Marriott’s (2000) On Black Men. Still, one cannot ignore the great work of Aime Césaire’s (1955/2000) Discourse on Colonialism, Sylvia Wynter’s (2003) Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument, and the timeless James Baldwin’s (1968) Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, and Baldwin’s (1985) The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948–1985 (which includes the pertinent texts The Devil Finds Work, Black Boy Looks at White Boy, and Nobody Knows My Name) as contributive to this school of thought (for much of what is said through this Afro-pessimistic lens has already been confronted by Baldwin [Wilderson, 2016a]). Also, Michael Dumas’ (2016) efforts deserve mention as he investigates Blackness as it concerns the field of urban education. In all, this manner of viewing owes much to the questions surrounding positionality that arose out of Black Feminist thought life. But formally, Frank Wilderson credits Saidiya Hartman with birthing the term as it is used in the contemporary (Hartman & Wilderson, 2003). The present formulation of this lens is ultimately fashioned from Fanon’s (1952/1967, 1963/2004) ruminations.

In laboring to bring about an elongated musing on the vicissitudes of suffering at the site of the Black body, Afro-pessimism simultaneously works to rebut not only Humanism’s naivete, but to also illuminate the violent libidinal economics of the White and Brown world, while simultaneously interrogatively problematizing and thwarting illusionary discourses that misleadingly narrate the Black’s so-called inclusion in the body politic that is—civil society. Such vantage points ignore that civil society’s actors frolic with indiscreet gaiety upon the ontological and corporeal graveyard that modernity has built—and do frolic because of this erected burial ground. They are those who frolic in unconscious sadistic thanksgiving because there are those bodies who must be that which cannot be so that they may be. In other words, civil society (Humanity) gyrates wildly in biting mockery atop those who involuntarily serve as the “foundation of the national order” (Hartman & Wilderson, 2003, pp. 184–185). Baldwin returns, in chilling voice, letting loose from the grave, “There is one thing . . . which one can be certain. One knew where one was by knowing where the negro was. You knew that you were not at the bottom, because the negro was there” (Canadian Broadcast Corporation, n.d.). This is to say, this is the “baseline other” that provides a “conceptual coherence” to Humanity (Wilderson, 2020, p. 164). The Black, as a necessary and negated foundational piece atop which civil society plays, brings a coherence, a stability, to the entire Human-societal operation. But who are these members of civil society? This very concept of civil society which Hartman, Wilderson, and others reference points most emphatically to Fanon’s (1952/1967) Manichean world. Whites (hetero White males) and their “junior partners” (White women, immigrants, working class, non-Black people of color) who become and enter Humanity as a result of Black death, and stand, opposed, in unethical alliance to the Black are—civil society (Wilderson, 2010, 2015, 2020). However, in this article, the characters in this drama will not ever forego Wilderson’s (2010, 2020) definitions, but it will not shy away from the notion of Whites being that which encompasses all, regardless of religious affiliation and gender, and will hold to the belief that junior partners encompass Brown and non-Black minorities and immigrants. It will noticeably make mention of the White and Brown world. This will, of course, coincide with those authors given here who take seriously the idea that on one end there are Blacks, and on the other—everyone else, that is, the non-Black world (White and Brown), who stand in opposition to Blacks.

In striking coherence, the White and Brown world arises and is vivified not only by anti-Black violence which brims from the deviant libidinal of the collective who are “in the world” (Wilderson, 2010, 2020) and of civil society, but by an erasure of infinite continuity. It is the realm of the social that is mired, marked, and nurtured through the anti-Black libidinal desires of Whites and their junior partners. Moreover, this realm is desperately dependent on the exclusion of the Black body from full personhood—this being—the removal of the Black from any consideration for Human relationality. This reality is rooted most emphatically in modernity’s birth—a birth which injuriously arranges the “mise en scene” (Wilderson, 2010) of the social. Modernity’s commencement is the ontological “big bang,” which Wilderson (2010) posits as a sort of “beginning” for the establishment of the White-Human world. Simultaneously, it marks a multifaceted “grand closing” of sorts for the Black. Modernity becomes the structuring force and foundational algorithm that transforms African-rooted bodies into Blackened ones—an ontological reformation and ontological rupture, which forever overdetermines (harkening back to Fanon, 1952/1967) the Blackened body and casts it out of the Human tree (here, there are traces of Wynter’s [2003] archipelago). Modernity, as Wilderson (2010) details, “marks the emergence of a new ontology because it is an era in which an entire race appears,” meaning, “people who, a priori, that is prior to the contingency of the ‘transgressive act’ (such as losing a war or being convicted of a crime), stand as socially dead in relation to the rest of the world.” This era, which includes “(the years 1300 to the present),” is that which “becomes the singular purview of the Black,” which is but an era in which “slavery is cathedralized,” suggesting it “‘advances’ from a word which describes a condition that anyone can be subjected to, to a word which reconfigures the African body into Black flesh” (p. 18).

An essential aspect of this lens is the assertion that the Black is in an irreconcilable antagonistic relation, a “structural breach,” that exists “between Black people and the world” as opposed to a conflict with the rest of the world. This is in reference to the rubric of conflict versus the rubric of antagonisms (Wilderson, 2010). Conflicts are that which can be conceptually addressed and solved, manifesting as women’s liberation struggles or class, immigration, or ethnic clashes (Wilderson, 2010). To address the Gramscian worker’s issue, one needs to address wages. For the Black, the irreconcilable emerges when one is talking about “unwaged slavery, despotism, and terror,” when one is meditating, for example, on a demand in excess of Gramscian worker discourse (Wilderson, 2003b, p. 21). For example, for Wilderson (2003b), the positionality of the worker and positionality of the slave are in stark contrast, as they make very different demands (the slave is that whose demand uproots the system itself). Addressing hegemony and economic exploitation quells the fright and frustration of the laborer. But what can be said about the Black, who kickstarted capital itself (Wilderson, 2010, 2020)? The antagonism recognizes “the privileged subject of Marxist discourse is a subaltern who is approached by variable capital — a wage. In other words, Marxism assumes a subaltern structured by capital, not by white supremacy” (Wilderson, 2003a, p. 225). (And what does this mean for Michael W. Apple [1982/2012] and others within the curriculum field and their intense focus on the structuring forces of hegemony instead of the structuring and underwriting forces of the libidinal economy, White supremacy, and of issues beyond hegemonic analysis?)

Ad Infinitum: The Black, The Slave, and Slavery

So meaningful is the “symbolic value” of Whiteness (Wilderson, 2010), so enduring are the consequences of the “racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago” (Hartman, 1997, p. 6), so vital was the establishment of the ontological kingdom, and so vital are the explanatory powers of the metaphysical that Black remains synonymous with slave, synonymous with social death. “Blackness and slaveness cannot be disimbricated” (Wilderson, 2016a). This highlights the grand coronation in which the Black is birthed in the abyss. Here, the temporal experience is only had as a stillborn of modernity. In this, a time of plentitude, a time and identity before the harbingers of death cannot be cognized for those of the African continent (Douglass & Wilderson, 2013). These ruminations encircle Wilderson (2016b), informing, “no Black temporality is antecedent to the temporality of the Slave” (p. 89). This too underscores the continuity of the ballads of bereavement in the unlived “lives” of Blacks.

Blackness is not, in the context of the Human, a cultural, gendered, or economic identity. Blacks, “as utter abjection, is a nothingness without history . . . indistinguishable from the unhistorical nothingness of a people without time” (Marriott, 2007, p. 240). Wilderson (2010) makes clear that Blackness “refers to an individual who is by definition always already void of relationality” (p. 18).

Yes, relationality is a term used here to ask: In relation to whom is the slave? The slave, which is synonymous with Black, is but “the forename we must give to a man or woman whose body can be degraded, whose life can be mutilated, and whose work and resources can be squandered—with impunity” (Mbembe, 2001, p. 235). Hartman (1997) precedes this, putting forth: “the fungibility of the commodity makes the captive body”—captive here means slave and Black—“an abstract and empty vessel vulnerable to the projection of others’ feelings, ideas, desires, and values; and, as property, the dispossessed body of the enslaved is the surrogate for the master’s body. . .” (p. 21). And Mbembe (2001) makes clear that the slave can just as well be given “the forename ‘thing.’” To this point, Achille Mbembe (2001) contends, “we must understand the contrary of the substantive—that is, something that somewhere is nothing. . . . As such, the thing does not determine itself at all” (p. 235). To restate such a claim, the Black is that which is not (the not refers to one’s ontological banishment and banishment from society) by virtue of its slaveness. The Black arrives as—thing, an arrival that simultaneously screams adieu—a thing not there, as the concrete carnal vessel appears as an “ontic illusion” (Warren, 2018). The Black thing is that which is presented endlessly with the gift of death to secure the boundaries of Eurocentric and Euro-adjacent Humanity (Warren, 2018). That which must be noted is, first, to be enslaved is to have one’s life taken (Patterson, 1982), and second, slavery is not about labor (rather it is not the essential element of it), but reveals endless natal alienation and dishonor (Wilderson, 2010).

The sine qua non of Afro-pessimism’s very understanding and articulation of the slave, slavery, and the resulting social death that the slave experiences and comes to embody, begins by utilizing Orlando Patterson’s (1982) foundational and transgenerational analysis of slavery and then furthers Patterson’s (1982) own analysis. Patterson (1982) specifically articulates that “slavery is the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons” (p. 13). And Wilderson’s (2010, 2020) comprehensive reading of Patterson articulates it this way: The slave (the Black) is that which experiences natal alienation, general dishonor, and gratuitous violence. And Patterson (1982) makes clear, “natal alienation: This is the social death of the slave” (p. 38). Social death is the essential result here as the slave is prohibited entrance into any temporality and spaciality that can be articulated (Wilderson, 2020). But “unlike Orlando Patterson’s generic Slave, who may be of any race,” Wilderson (2020) picks up where Patterson (1982) left off to further that the Black slave is fastened within a “stillness” made plain by Spillers (1987). A “powerful stillness” this is, in that “‘slave’ is perceived as the essence of stillness (an early version of ‘ethnicity’), or of an undynamic human state, fixed in time and space” (p. 78). Stated another way, one must meditate on the “temporal stillness of absolute dereliction” (Wilderon, 2010, p. 182) which the Black resides within. What such dereliction lends is that a particular holding pattern of chattel lingers for the Black in which there is not only no narrative of redemption on the horizon, but there is no pre-disruptive age of normality (Wilderson, 2010) in which the Black can take comfort in. And it seems the narratives of “people of color,” not the Black, always reveal a “falling action” in which loose ends are tied up, or contain within them room and possibility for the redemption to occur. Yet for the Black, one’s “tale” is disturbingly static.

A “living death” that “is not lived in the world that the world lives in,” this is. Rather “it is lived underground, in outer space” (Sexton, 2011, para. 24). Stated differently, “black life is lived in social death” (Sexton, 2011, para. 24). And this sort of “life” cannot be articulated or measured by that which civil society has at its disposal or that which civil society can cognize.

The Heart of Curriculum

At the heart of curriculum is a particular project that Pinar (1975) describes as currere. The concept of currere was formally birthed from Pinar (1975) and Grumet’s (1975) reconceptualization of the field. Currere is a multitiered method that requires one to take part in its four stages: Regressive, progressive, analytical, and synthetic. Regression aims to “re-cognize the self” and requires the analysand to commit to internal work that is “necessarily solitary, requiring space and time away from distraction and noise” (Doll, 2017, p. 53). One is engaged in “uncovering this self, and in psychoanalytic fashion, experiencing the relief of understanding how one came to be psychically, which is to say, socially” (Pinar, 2004, p. 55). Pinar (2004) believes, “There is, I think we can say, a relatively ‘authentic’ self, or selves, or elements of self,” and when one connects with that inner organic, one feels “congruent, integrated, ‘right’” (p. 55). Subsequently, the progressive stage charges that one meditates on fantasies of the future and the self that one desires to be (Pinar, 2004). From this point, one is to analyze (analytic) the journey and work to utilize one’s agency (synthetic).

Through currere, one explores their “interiority,” their “inner lives in the context of education and in the context of our relations with others and the larger society” (Morris, 2015, p. 103). Through currere, the self-reflexive student begins to comprehend “his life and its relation to cultural and economic life” (Pinar, 1994, p. 111). This experience of currere appears to desire and require one to carve out and enter into something similar to a “room of one’s own.”10 This is “a place, literally, to allow space, figuratively, to converse with oneself” (Doll, 2017, p. 53). Through currere, the student moves from “conditioned participation on oppressive political reality to self-reflexive, active movement in order to alter that reality. . .” (Pinar, 2009, p. 11). Pinar (1994) makes plain that “autobiographical work of this nature, as it transforms the individual, must transform the material structures of society” (p. 109). And here, is not currere racing toward its maturation, cosmopolitanism and yes, worldliness? Pinar (2009) highlights cosmopolitanism “as subjectively being-in-the-the world” tied to “subjective engagement in and for the world” (Pinar, 2009, p. 3). A matter this is, of blurring the lines between private musings and social affairs—a dovetailing of one’s engagement with one’s inner self and one’s engagement with the outer world (this portends the pursuit of social justice). Pinar’s (2009) cosmopolitanism is supplemented by a worldliness that attends to the immediacies within the lived human (Human) experience, that puts on the robe of ethical responsibility to a given society. And yet, in currere’s full bloom, the Black’s death letter blues plays on—uninterrupted.11

Still, the overarching view of Pinar (2004) remains: “The student of educational experience takes as hypothesis that she or he . . . is located in historical time and cultural place” (p. 36). Pinar and Grumet (1976) imbue this with the concept that each person is always in a biographic situation which “suggests a structure of lived meaning” (Pinar, 2004, p. 36). Ultimately, currere is “. . .one way to work to liberate one from the web of political, cultural, and economic influences that are perhaps buried from conscious view but nonetheless comprise the living web that is a person’s biographic situation” (Pinar, 1994, p. 108).

But Afro-pessimism interrupts currerean dreamwork by stating that currere falsely imagines a subject within Humanity’s intervals, an actor with agency and capacity, a being that is part of the non-Black American social fabric.12 Currere imagines simultaneously a being with a narrative and whose narrative has yet to be completed. Currere imagines a past and a future that exists not for Black bodies. Currere and its cosmopolitan and worldly maturation imagines a metaphysical presence for all actors, and yes, the ability to make demands on the social stage. The Afro-pessimists challenge the notion that the Black can be located within time and space and argues that to talk of the Black’s biographic situation is a more than complicated matter. This “complicated” reference points as well to Pinar’s complicated conversation (Pinar et al., 1995). This conversation speaks to a decompartmentalization of academics, private life, and public life and a greater sense of connectivity between past, present, and future while enhancing one’s relational understanding with other Humans. The complicated conversation is allowed room when faculty and students are provided “opportunities . . . to articulate relations among the school subjects, society, and self-formation” (Pinar, 2004, p. 191). Yet can we argue that that which assists Humans in the illustration of their lives and experiences is that which violently allows Humans to paint extravagant self-portraits atop a Blackened canvas? What aspects of the conversation fail to launch for the Black?

Currere understands not that the “Black psyche,” unlike the non-Black actor who practices currere in an effort to bring about the emergence of self, “emerges within a context of structural violence that cannot be analogized with the emergence of White or non-Black psyches” (Wilderson, 2020). To the Black, one cannot simply explore one’s interiority, one cannot simply do supposed autobiographical work, one cannot simply meet this “authentic” self. Douglass and Wilderson (2013) allude to the reality of the violence that thwarts Black psychic integration.

The Afro-pessimist knows, too, that currere is wrapped up in the politics of “becoming” and “transcendence” and rhetorically asks if Human becoming and transcendence are birthed at the expense of the Black creature that is the foundational Heidegerrean nothing.13 Subsequently, the Afro-pessimist asks if the very possibilities within becoming and transcendence are only made available to Humans (non-Blacks). The Afro-pessimist puts forth that the very currerean imaginary—essential to liberatory dreams—dances atop and exploits a foundation of Black absence. Currere is a liberatory project aimed at resolving the intricate issues of civil society, of Human beings plagued by the flood of hegemonic interference in their lives. The Afro-pessimist knows that currere needs the ontological nothingness of the Black as the constant variable upon which to assist Humanity in their reclamation (in which they return to self and discover their agency) and liberatory projects.

The problem is not simply that currere realizes its potential as it ontologically phlebotomizes the Black to then assist non-Black beings who “find themselves in the psychoanalytic and existential wilderness” to then launch these Humans toward becoming; the issue is that this touted method can do little in the arena of redress to attend to the deathly debris of the Black experience. To the Black, currere is mere pantomimic activity. Currere weighs not that even if the Black were to attempt a meaningful engagement with currere, then the search for “oneself” will become a search for the White self—an effort to engage in African-diasporic negation—a journey to destroy, as Wilderson (2011) articulates, the “Black imago.” Adding to this, the self that the Black shall uncover within is not “self.” Rather, an imposter sits at the seat of the psyche while holding White dreams. The self that was has already been murdered and is being murdered. For the Black, however, there are matters for which only the city of bones, only the door of no return can address.14

Black Scholars

Black theorists in and around the field of U.S. curriculum studies have made considerable headway in challenging the White-Western canon of curriculum education. These theorists, alongside one of their notable works, include William H. Watkins’ (2005) Black Protest Thought and Education, Lisa Delpit’s (2006) Other People’s Children, and, Gloria Ladson-Billings’ (1995) “But that’s just good teaching!: The case for culturally relevant pedagogy.” Contemporary Black feminist scholars such as Denise Taliaferro Baszile (2015) and Bettina Love (2017) have also made significant strides in raising critical intersectional concerns for all Black bodies, especially Black female bodies in and around the schoolhouse. Joyce E. King’s (2005) edited volume Black Education is another compelling text which offers brilliant insight into the plight of Blacks in formal educational institutions. Also, Richard Milner’s (2017) push to return to the original intentions of culturally relevant pedagogy is worth noting.

Though this applies not to all Black scholars of curriculum in the same fashion, Afro-pessimism does not theorize within hegemonic freedom dreams. It departs from missions fashioned like currere that are essentially quests to rescue the self and liberate one from webs of hegemonic entanglements. It refuses to be a modifier for currere. Afro-pessimism longs not to embark on the fruitless endeavor to rescue the Black’s humanity and live in the fantasy of Black relationality. It emphatically departs from many a Black scholar who argues from a foundation of or a coalescing around a return to and establishment of radical Black love and an embrace of the so-called beauty of Blackness. Afro-pessimism’s peak conclusion, unlike many scholars within curriculum studies, is not that there exists this “imperial white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (hooks, 2013) (though one cannot deny the existence of such), which must be tackled through collective multicultural and cross-categorical political action. Afro-pessimism critiques the longing for political and policy endeavors to address ontological concerns and busies itself with something beyond the call to end standardized testing (though attention on curricular weapons formed to thwart Black existence is important). It argues not that the Black exists on the margins; instead, it argues that Blacks are absent and so appear in the graves outside of marginality. Blacks set the parameters for the establishment of what is marginal. The lens of Afro-pessimism asks not even for “culturally relevant pedagogical techniques and teaching”15 in addressing what plagues Black bodies—for what do such methods say about an ontological dilemma or about a raging libidinal economy? Further, can we even link African Americans to the term—culture?

However, scholars such as Michael Dumas’ (2016) work on anti-Blackness, kihana miraya ross’ (2021) text on anti-Blackness and fugitivity, and Savannah Shange’s (2019) examination of the progressive dystopia have more Afro-pessimistic threads than many and deserve much praise. To varying degrees, these scholars travel into the depths of describing suffering and social death while wading extensively in the intricate aftershocks of forced ontological absence.

Black Hole

The charge taken up by the Afro-pessimistic scholar is to birth Black holes, both in curriculum scholarship and in formal educational spaces. The Black hole is the woman found at the beginning of Derrick Bell’s (1992) Faces at the Bottom of the Well who “lives to harass white folks” (p. xii). The Black hole is the woman outside the gate of Frank Wilderson’s (2010) Red, White, & Black who used to “yell at Whites, Latinos, and East and South Asian students, staff, and faculty as they entered the university,” accusing “them of having stolen her sofa and of selling her into slavery” (Wilderson, 2010, p. 1). The Black hole arises to devour the field’s self-assurance that its Humanism is far reaching. The Black hole erupts to devour the “cruel optimism” (Berlant, 2011) curriculum espouses. The Black hole disrupts via a rupture in curricular inquiries. At the onset, the Black hole reminds all that “Whitey’s on the moon” (Scott-Heron, 1970) before illustrating for the onlooker a ghastly rupture—the “pastoral scene of the gallant South” (Holiday, 1939) and then the blood-stained gate without alleviation from these deathly imaginaries.16 The Black hole haunts non-Black life and non-Black vitality. The Black hole rejects the notion of “fitting in to the field of curriculum.” Afro-pessimism does not fit into “the field.” Rather, Afro-pessimism disrupts the field as it disrupts every one of its imaginative spaces.

It is through curriculum that modernity and its ministers (ministers of modernity) speak of matters related to their “lived experience,” of matters rooted in the temporalities of those who are civil society. And it is the Black hole that must wage war on this ontological covenant (called curriculum) between non-Blacks and pull curriculum toward the abyss. This is not a solution, for the Afro-pessimist knows there is no victory here, no way for the Black to be liberated. But the only matter that is worthwhile is to begin setting all within the field of curriculum, and the world itself, afire.

Further Reading

  • Berlant, L. G. (2011). Cruel optimism. Duke University Press.
  • Grumet, M. (1975, April). Existential and phenomenological foundations of currere: Self-report in curriculum inquiry [Paper presentation]. American Educational Research Association.
  • Hartman, S. V. (1997). Scenes of subjection: Terror, slavery, and self-making in nineteenth-century America. Oxford University Press.
  • Kliebard, H. M. (2004). The struggle for the American curriculum: 1893–1958 (3rd ed.). RoutledgeFalmer.
  • Pinar, W. F. (1975, April). The method of “currere” [Paper presentation]. American Educational Research Association.
  • Pinar, W. F. (1994). Autobiography, politics, and sexuality: Essays in curriculum theory 1972–1992. P. Lang.
  • Pinar, W. F. (2004). What is curriculum theory? Erlbaum.
  • Schubert, W. H. (2009). What’s worthwhile: From knowing and experiencing to being and becoming. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 6(1), 21–29.
  • Sexton, J. (2015). Unbearable blackness. Cultural Critique, 90(1), 159–178.
  • Warren, C. (2018). Ontological terror. Duke University Press.
  • Wilderson, F. B. (2003). Gramsci’s black Marx: Whither the slave in civil society? Social Identities, 9(2), 225–240.
  • Wilderson, F. B. (2016, March 30). Afro-pessimism and the end of redemption. Occupied Times.
  • Wilderson, F. B. (2020). Afropessimism. Liveright.
  • Yancey, G. (2003). Who is white?: Latinos, Asians, and the new black/nonblack divide. Lynne Rienner.


  • Apple, M. W. (1993). Official knowledge: Democratic education in a conservative age. Routledge.
  • Apple, M. W. (2004). Ideology and curriculum (3rd ed.). RoutledgeFalmer.
  • Apple, M. W. (2012). Education and power (2nd ed.). Routledge. (Original work published 1982)
  • Baldwin, J. (1968). Tell me how long the train’s been gone. Laurel.
  • Baldwin, J. (1985). The price of the ticket: Collected nonfiction, 1948–1985. St. Martin’s/Marek.
  • Baszile, D. T. (2015). Critical race/feminist currere. In M. F. He, W. Shubert, & B. Shultz (Eds.), The SAGE guide to curriculum and education (pp. 120–126). SAGE.
  • Baugh, M. (2019). Libidinal beasts within a kingdom for the civilized [Doctoral dissertation, Georgia Southern University]. Digital Commons at Georgia Southern University.
  • Beckett, S. (1958). Endgame: A play in one act. Grove Press.
  • Bell, D. A. (1992). Faces at the bottom of the well: The permanence of racism. Basic Books.
  • Bobbitt, F. (1918). The curriculum. Houghton Mifflin.
  • Brand, D. (2002). A map to the door of no return: Notes to belonging. Vintage Canada.
  • Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). (n.d.). Author James Baldwin on being black in America. CBC Archives.
  • Césaire, A. (2000). Discourse on colonialism (J. Pinkham, Trans.). Monthly Review Press. (Original work published 1955)
  • Césaire, A. (2013). The original 1939 notebook of a return to the native land (A. J. Arnold & C. Eshleman, Trans.). Wesleyan University Press. (Original work published 1939)
  • Chapman, M. (2017). Anti-black racism in early modern English drama: The other “other.” Routledge.
  • Counts, G. S. (1978). Dare the school build a new social order? Southern Illinois University Press. (Original work published 1932)
  • Delpit, L. D. (2006). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New Press.
  • Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. Macmillan.
  • Doll, M. A. (2017). The reconceptualization of curriculum studies: A Festschrift in honor of William F. Pinar. Taylor and Francis.
  • Douglass, F. (1999). Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. Documenting the American South. (Original work published 1845)
  • Douglass, P., Terrefe, S. W., & Wilderson, F. B. (2018). Afro-Pessimism. Oxford bibliographies. Oxford University Press.
  • Douglass, P., & Wilderson, F. B. (2013). The violence of presence: Metaphysics in a blackened world. The Black Scholar, 43(4), 117–123.
  • Du Bois, W. E. B. (1994). The souls of black folk. Dover. (Original work published 1903)
  • Dumas, M. J. (2016). Against the dark: Antiblackness in education policy and discourse. Theory Into Practice, 55(1), 11–19.
  • Dumas, M. J., & ross, k. m. (2016). “Be real black for me”: Imagining blackcrit in education. Urban Education, 51(4), 415–442.
  • Fanon, F. (1967). Black skin, white masks (R. Philcox, Trans.). Grove Press. (Original work published 1952)
  • Fanon, F. (2004). The wretched of the earth (R. Philcox, Trans.). Grove Press. (Original work published 1963)
  • Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). Seabury Press.
  • Gaztambide-Fernández, R. (2015). Browning the curriculum: A project of unsettlement. In M. He, B. Schultz, & W. Schubert (Eds.), The SAGE guide to curriculum in education (pp. 416–423). SAGE.
  • Gordon, L. R. (1997). Her Majesty’s other children: Philosophical sketches of racism from a neocolonial age. Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Greene, M. (1978). Landscapes of learning. Teachers College Press.
  • Hartman, S. V. (1997). Scenes of subjection: Terror, slavery, and self-making in nineteenth-century America. Oxford University Press.
  • Hartman, S. V. (2007). Lose your mother: A journey along the Atlantic slave route. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Hartman, S. V., & Wilderson, F. B. (2003). The position of the unthought. Qui Parle, 13(2), 183–201.
  • Heidegger, M. (2010). Being and time (J. Stambaugh, Trans.). State University of New York Press. (Original work published 1927)
  • Holiday, B. (1939). Strange fruit. Commodore.
  • hooks, B. (2013). Writing beyond race: Living theory and practice. Routledge.
  • House, S. (1965). Death letter [Song]. On Father of the folk blues: The legendary Son House [Album]. Columbia.
  • Huebner, D. E., Pinar, W., & Hillis, V. (1999). The lure of the transcendent: Collected essays by Dwayne E. Huebner. Erlbaum.
  • King, J. E. (Ed.). (2005). Black education: A transformative research and action agenda for the new century. Erlbaum.
  • Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching!: The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory Into Practice, 34(3), 159–165.
  • Love, B. L. (2017). Difficult knowledge: When a black feminist educator was too afraid to #sayhername. English Education, 49(2), 197–208.
  • Marriott, D. (2000). On black men. Columbia University Press.
  • Marriott, D. (2007). Haunted life: Visual culture and black modernity. Rutgers University Press.
  • Mbembe, A. (2001). On the postcolony. University of California Press.
  • Mbembe, A. (2017). Critique of black reason. Duke University Press.
  • Miller, J. L. (2005). Sounds of silence breaking: Women, autobiography, curriculum. P. Lang.
  • Milner IV, H. R. (2017). Where’s the race in culturally relevant pedagogy? Teachers College Record, 119(1), 1–32.
  • Morris, M. (2015). Currere as subject matter. In M. F. He, B. D. Schultz, & W. H. Schubert (Eds.), The SAGE guide to curriculum in education (pp. 416–423). SAGE.
  • Patterson, O. (1982). Slavery and social death: A comparative study. Harvard University Press.
  • Pinar, W. F. (1975, April). The method of “currere” [Paper presentation]. American Educational Research Association.
  • Pinar, W. F. (1994). Autobiography, politics, and sexuality: Essays in curriculum theory 1972–1992. P. Lang.
  • Pinar, W. F. (2004). What is curriculum theory? 0Erlbaum.
  • Pinar, W. F. (2009). The worldliness of a cosmopolitan education: Passionate lives in public service. Routledge.
  • Pinar, W. F., & Grumet, M. R. (1976). Toward a poor curriculum. Kendall & Hunt.
  • Pinar, W. F., Reynolds, W. M., Slattery, P., & Taubman, P. M. (1995). Understanding curriculum: An introduction to the study of historical and contemporary curriculum discourses. Peter Lang.
  • ross, k. m. (2021). On black education anti-blackness, refusal, and resistance. In C. A. Grant, A. Woodson, & M. Dumas (Eds.), The future is Black: Afropessimism, fugitivity, and radical hope in education (pp. 7–15). Routledge.
  • Schubert, W. H. (1986). Curriculum: Perspective, paradigm, and possibility. Macmillan.
  • Schubert, W. H. (2009). What’s worthwhile: From knowing and experiencing to being and becoming. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 6(1), 21–29.
  • Schubert, W. H. (2010). Journeys of expansion and synopsis: Tensions in books that shaped curriculum inquiry, 1968–present. Curriculum Inquiry, 40(1), 17–94.
  • Scott-Heron, G. (1970). Whitey on the moon [Song]. On small talk at 125th and lenox [Album]. Flying Dutchman.
  • Sexton, J. (2008). Amalgamation schemes: Antiblackness and the critique of multiracialism. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Sexton, J. (2010). People-of-color-blindness: Notes on the afterlife of slavery. Social Text, 28(2), 31–56.
  • Sexton, J. (2011). The social life of social death: On Afro-pessimism and black optimism. InTensions, 5, 1–47.
  • Sexton, J. (2016). Afro-pessimism: The unclear word. Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge, 29.
  • Shakespeare, W. (1768). Hamlet: Prince of Denmark. A tragedy. Martin & Wotherspoon. (Original work published 1623)
  • Shange, S. (2019). Progressive dystopia: Abolition, antiblackness, and schooling in San Francisco. Duke University Press.
  • Sharpe, C. (2016). In the wake: On blackness and being. Duke University Press.
  • Spillers, H. J. (1987). Mama’s baby, papa’s maybe: An American grammar book. Diacritics, 17(2), 65.
  • Spivak, G. C. (1988). Can the subaltern speak? Macmillan.
  • Warren, C. (2015). Black nihilism and the politics of hope. CR: The New Centennial Review, 15(1), 215–248.
  • Warren, C. (2018). Ontological terror. Duke University Press.
  • Watkins, W. H. (2005). Black protest thought and education. P. Lang.
  • Wilderson, F. B. (2003a). Gramsci’s black Marx: Whither the slave in civil society? Social Identities, 9(2), 225–240.
  • Wilderson, F. B. (2003b). The prison slave as hegemony’s (silent) scandal. Social Justice, 30(2), 18–27.
  • Wilderson, F. B. (2010). Red, white & black: Cinema and the structure of U.S. antagonisms. Duke University Press.
  • Wilderson, F. B. (2011). The vengeance of vertigo: Aphasia and abjection in the political trials of black insurgents. InTensions, 5, 1–41.
  • Wilderson, F. B. (2015). Social death and narrative aporia in 12 years a slave. Black Camera, 7(1), 134–149.
  • Wilderson, F. B. (2016a). Afro-pessimism and friendship in South Africa: An interview with Frank B. Wilderson III. In S. Walsh & J. Soske (Eds.), Ties that bind: Race and the politics of friendship in South Africa (pp. 70–99). Wits University Press.
  • Wilderson, F. B. (2016b). Doing time in the (psychic) commons: Black insurgency and the unconscious. In A. M. Agathangelou & K. D. Killian (Eds.), Time, temporality and violence in international relations (pp. 87–103). Routledge.
  • Wilderson, F. B. (2020). Afropessimism. Liveright.
  • Wilson, A. (2006). Gem of the ocean. Theatre Communications Group.
  • Woolf, V. (1929). A room of one’s own. Harcourt, Brace & Company.
  • Wynter, S. (2003). Unsettling the coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom: Towards the human, after man, its overrepresentation—an argument. CR: The New Centennial Review, 3(3), 257–337.
  • Yancy, G. (2008). Black bodies, white gazes: The continuing significance of race. Rowman & Littlefield.


  • 1. See Beckett (1958) and Baugh (2019).

  • 2. See Baugh (2019).

  • 3. See Shakespeare (1768), Act III, I

  • 4. See Chapman (2017) for an analysis of conventional otherness.

  • 5. See Hartman (1997). The Black slave is the foundation for the current global order.

  • 6. See Warren’s (2018) take on the roots of Heidegger’s thinking.

  • 7. A reading of Pinar’s (1975) and Pinar and Grumet’s (1976) texts will make plain the liberatory aims of curriculum; A reading of Huebner et al. (1999) The Lure of the Transcendent will uncover the link between curriculum and transcendence.

  • 8. Warren (2018) serves as the basis for this analysis.

  • 9. See Schubert’s (1986) worthwhile questions.

  • 10. See Woolf (1929).

  • 11. See House (1965).

  • 12. See Douglass and Wilderson (2013).

  • 13. See Warren (2018), who articulates this notion of Heidegger and the connection between Black bodies and nothing.

  • 14. See Wilson’s (2006) Aunt Ester; See Brand’s (2002) explanation of the slave and the door.

  • 15. This is an incomplete list, but culturally responsive practices have often been promoted by Gloria Ladson-Billings, Lisa Delpit, and Sonia Nieto (not Black).

  • 16. See the opening scene in Frederick Douglass’s (1845/1999) narrative.